By Lisa Turner, EAA Lifetime 509911
This piece originally ran in Lisa’s Airworthy column in the November 2022 issue of EAA Sport Aviation magazine.
Mike was a bundle of nerves. Sweat ran down his brow, and his hands were shaking as he walked into the flight school office.
Beth, his flight instructor, and David, the FAA pilot examiner, stood at the counter.
“Ready?” David asked.
“Ah, not sure,” Mike replied.
“Mike, you’ve been working on your private pilot for eight months, and you know it inside out,” Beth said.
As Mike and David walked into the classroom for the oral section of the testing, she shook her head. The students get so rattled, she thought. Then again, I guess I was the same way.
Two hours later, Mike came out of the classroom looking much more confident. Beth gave a sigh of relief as David nodded in a side glance of approval as they exited the office.
When they returned from the checkride, Mike was beaming in happiness.
“Decent pilot,” David, who was not the type to offer much praise, said.
It was Beth’s turn to smile. Sometimes you couldn’t tell how things would go, between nerves and weather. She turned to Mike and said, “I guess you need an airplane now.”
As Mike left the office later, he was walking on a cloud. He’d never been so happy. Yes, I do need an airplane, he thought.
Still surrounded by an aura of happiness, Mike walked into the office the next morning. All he could think about was flying. Beth was behind the counter.
“I talked to my family in South Carolina, and I’d like to rent the 152 for four days,” Mike said.
Beth frowned. “Mike, I can understand your excitement. But there are two problems. I can’t rent the 152 for that long, and you will faint when you see the rental price.”
Mike looked stunned. “Of course, of course,” he mumbled, leaving the office without another word.
Beth didn’t see Mike for another week and grew concerned. As she picked up the phone to call, she saw him walking across the ramp toward the office.
Beth saw that Mike’s normally sunny disposition had returned as he walked in.
“I figured it out,” he said to Beth.
“Tell me,” Beth said. “I was worried when you left here last week, crestfallen.”
“I’ll say. I looked at several aircraft for sale on the field. I found one I wanted to negotiate on. I wanted to add a five-point seat belt harness, some new avionics, and an extra fuel tank. The owner looked at me in shock. ‘You can’t do that!’ he shouted. ‘Why not?’ I said. ‘Because of the FAA regulations, it will be difficult to impossible,’ he replied.
“I thought I was at a dead end when I walked into the FBO and looked out the window to see the sleekest, most beautiful airplane I’ve ever laid eyes on,” Mike said. “When I went outside to look, I found out from the owner that he actually built it. Once I saw the accessories and equipment in it, I knew what I was going to do.”
Why You Should Build Your Next Airplane
Much has changed around building airplanes in garages in the last 50 years. Plans and instructions are better, kits are technically advanced, designs are excellent, and choices abound. There’s a path to get in the air for every budget.
One of the best reasons for building an airplane, ultralight, or rotorcraft is the opportunity to maintain it yourself and make improvements that would be regulation-heavy or impossible in a production aircraft.
Making the choice to build an aircraft still shocks friends who are not immersed in aviation, but of course it’s commonplace now in the flying world. However, it’s not a choice to enter into without forethought, planning, and adequate prioritizing.
- You can do your own condition inspection if you obtain the repairman certificate for your project. Anyone can maintain an experimental aircraft.*
- You can find a technical counselor to advise you at no cost. These build-savvy EAA volunteers will make numerous visits to your project. When it’s time for testing, EAA flight advisors are also at the ready to help you through the process.
- You can build the airplane as part of a group. Federal Aviation Regulation 21.191(g) states: “Operating amateur-built aircraft. Operating an aircraft the major portion of which has been fabricated and assembled by persons who undertook the construction project solely for their own education or recreation.”
- If you choose a well-established kit manufacturer, you will have factory support and good, if not excellent, documentation.
- You can do a variety of customizations. The manufacturer can advise you.
- You can choose what electronics and instruments you want.
- You can usually choose what powerplant you want in the aircraft.
- You can choose easy to assemble or challenging to assemble. You can choose a quick-build or plansbuilt aircraft.
- You may have some leeway on design changes if you work with the manufacturer.
- If you build a new kit, parts and components will be new.
- Established homebuilt kits have been tested by others before you, ensuring a high level of safety and performance.
- Established and popular designs may develop a substantial resale value. This is a bonus; it’s not typical to see prices go up more than the collective cost of materials, with labor hours not accruing value. There are multiple models now that command a premium on resale.
*To see who can do what tasks on experimental amateur-built aircraft, light-sport aircraft, and certified aircraft, see “Maintenance: Who Can Do What,” Airworthy, September, 2021.
- If you work in a group, only one individual can apply for the repairman certificate.
- Although most A&P mechanics will work on homebuilts, some will not. If you decide to have others maintain and do condition inspections on your project, it may be difficult to find service.
- You will have to put a thoughtful test plan together, and be ready for extra maintenance and attention in the first 50-200 hours.
- If you choose a plansbuilt kit, there will be more variability in the build, it will take longer, and there may be more testing and more maintenance as the kinks are worked out.
- If you choose a kit without many airplanes of its type flying, you may lack testing information and manufacturer support.
- The time and cost to build and fly will always be higher than you thought.
- Choose a well-established kit manufacturer with many aircraft flying.
- Visit the manufacturer and tour the facility. Fly the demonstrator.
- Ask for (or purchase) the instruction/assembly manual and review it.
- Consider and test fly at least three different aircraft.
Be warned that it’s easy to get excited about a big project and rationalize over the time and effort it will take. Before jumping in, do a thorough self-analysis. Effective time management does not mean fitting in more things. It means making choices and saying no to more things. What you end up choosing should be the most rewarding and happiness-generating endeavor you can find.
At EAA AirVenture Oshkosh and other aviation events, you can see more possibilities and more variety every year. Once you’ve made out your wish list, searching for your favorite project is as exciting as anything you can do in life. Getting in the air in your own aircraft will be the pinnacle of achievement. From a maintenance standpoint, you will have the best of all worlds.
All of this sounds rosy, and I’m not trying to convince you that building an airplane is for everyone. Of course it’s not. When you read through the fascinating building and restoring stories in this magazine, you realize that each person’s path to their dream is different.
But if you keep finding yourself longing for your own custom project with the latest bells and whistles, and want a challenge that will be one of the most rewarding of your lifetime, consider building (and maintaining) your own aircraft.
Lisa Turner, EAA Lifetime 509911, is a manufacturing engineer, A&P, EAA technical counselor and flight advisor, and former designated airworthiness representative. She built and flew a Pulsar XP and Kolb Mark III, and is researching her next homebuilt project. Lisa’s third book, Dream Take Flight, details her Pulsar flying adventures and life lessons. Write Lisa at Lisa@DreamTakeFlight.com and learn more at DreamTakeFlight.com.